No One Can Explain The Dominance Of Cavalry

The historical consensus holds that the invention of the stirrup was a major development in military history. By permitting the horseman to keep his seat, the simplified story goes, the stirrup changed the dominant strategy from the infantry-based armies of antiquity to the shock cavalry-based armies that came to dominate in the middle ages.

This story seems to make sense. The change in the composition of European armies is real and needs to be explained. (Infantry remained the numerical majority of most armies, but heavy cavalry became more important in determining the outcome of battles.) Horsemen without stirrups used different equipment in different ways than the stirrup-using knights we’re familiar with. The cavalry charge against massed infantry is almost unheard of in antiquity but becomes an extremely important tactic from the early middle ages until well after the ubiquity of firearms.

However, there is no historical consensus on when the stirrup became important in Europe. I’ve seen serious claims ranging from the late 300s to the late 700s. There’s sharp disagreement over very basic claims, like “Was the Battle of Adrianople a triumph of cavalry over infantry?” or “Did the Carolingian military use stirrups?” (I haven’t checked whether these questions were resolved by recent archeological work, but if the answers weren’t obvious 40 years ago, that’s still a notable fact.) The history of the stirrup before it reached Europe, e.g. in India or central Asia, is no clearer.

This is super weird. If the stirrup was such a huge deal, shouldn’t we be able to see its effects? If a historian in the year 3000 were trying to date the advent of the machine gun, and only had fragments of secondary sources and doubtful archeological scraps, it would still be possible because the machine gun so greatly transformed strategy, tactics, and the experience of individual soldiers. (The American Civil War is the only case I can think of where a smart scholar might get the wrong answer.) This is what we see for other massive shifts in historical weapons, such as chariots, castles, and artillery. If the stirrup were anywhere near this important, its effects should be similarly visible.

I’ve read all these historians arguing about the minutiae of manuscripts and archeological finds to set dates on when the stirrup was used where, but if their basic claim about the importance of the stirrup is true, then there should be much simpler avenues to answering the question.

At this point, I’m inclined to think the stirrup was not as overpowering as is commonly asserted. Important, yes, but important on the scale of chainmail or the rifled barrel, not on the level of the phalanx or the nuclear bomb. Not important enough to explain the transition from armies dominated by infantry to armies dominated by cavalry. If it were, its history would be more apparent.

If true, this raises two questions. The first, why so many historians have overstated its importance, is relatively easy to answer. For one thing, contemporary prejudices favor explaining large-scale trends as the natural consequence of technological development. More importantly, historians are like anyone else in that they are biased towards simple and compelling explanations for things. The story of the stirrup transforming combat has enough truth to it to lay the foundation for such a narrative. It fits very well from a purely local perspective. In contrast, broad sociological outside-view checks like the one I’m running here seem, if not rare, then at least uncommon.

The more difficult question is why Europe transitioned from infantry-based armies to cavalry-based armies, if not for stirrups. I’m not sure. It could be a combination of technological factors: larger horses, improved saddles, better armorsmithing, horseshoes, and the temporary loss of the composite bow, together with stirrups, producing a combined effect greater than the sum of its parts. It’s possible, but I don’t trust this type of explanation. Strategic considerations are usually Pareto-distributed in importance, and one major factor tends to overwhelm many medium-size factors.

It could be a matter of economic and social organization: the sharp division between landholding knights extracting wealth from their tenants on the one hand, and peasant farmers with little capital on the other, led to a combination of arms that was perhaps inefficient from a purely military standpoint but crucial with regard to internal coherence, thus leading Carolingian-style feudalism to succeed and spread in spite of some necessary overemphasis on heavy cavalry. This strikes me as plausible but far from certain. The institutional and cultural prominence of knighthood in Europe is consistent with this story, at the very least.

A more exotic version of the prior hypothesis is that Europe transitioned to cavalry not because its cavalry was strong, but because its infantry was weak. If feudalism made it institutionally and ideologically difficult to raise large masses of competent, well-equipped infantry, then perhaps this explains the shift.

I’m not confident in any of these explanations. The more I look into this, the more I think the dominance of cavalry in medieval Europe is a mystery that still needs to be explained.

Edit: Stephen Morillo can explain the dominance of cavalry. See his comment and full article. Turns out the “Infantry was weak” hypothesis is correct.

40 thoughts on “No One Can Explain The Dominance Of Cavalry”

    1. Not the author, but stirrups have a number of useful effects, all basically originating from the ability to get your legs involved in the transmission of force. (I’m getting this both from historical research, and having done medieval swordfighting and spoken to jousters/reenactment folks.)

      For the lance charge, you’re much more likely to keep your seat. Once you’re in a more pitched battle, it also impacts how hard it is to drag you off your horse, as well as hard you can swing a sword.

      To viscerally test this, sit a chair with your feet off the ground and swing an object around. Now stand up and swing it around, and get your hips and legs involved.

      While I don’t think stirrups were the crucial enabling factor the dominance of cavalry in feudal Europe, they were really useful.

      1. >sit a chair with your feet off the ground and swing an object around

        … I literally did this. Checks out! XD

    2. JohnThurloe’s comment covers the mechanics better than I could. The most visible change we see from the extra stability he describes is the transition from the overhand lance, which delivered force from the arm, to the couched lance you’ve seen in jousting, which delivered force from the horse’s momentum. I suspect this was crucial to the development of the mass cavalry charge.

  1. My simple model is that cavalry is a dominant form of military might in non-centralized states.
    Centralized states can conduct a combination of diplomacy and border management that tends to focus
    on keeping enemies out, rather than preventing the damage of a raid by moving people and wealth to a central, fortified location (The castle).

    If you give up on defending your borders robustly, mobile forces to head off or harass invaders
    become more important. At the same time, the ability to raid as a tool of political pressure
    becomes increasingly important.

    In comparison, a centralized state can organize the movement of huge bodies of men to head off cavalry
    forces and maintain internal lines of communication for response. Communities defending smaller surface areas don’t seem to end up with the knights as anything like the same kind of dominant social order.

    1. Interesting. This also seems to explain the Napoleonic wars. We can view Napoleon as someone who specialized in overpowering centralized states via pitched battles, but who didn’t really understand how to deal with the anti-occupation strategies of noncentralized states, which is why he struggled in Spain (which is where we get the word “guerrilla”) and Russia.

      1. There’s also a parallel with Nazi Germany, which destroys the centralized border defenses of France (Also Czechoslovakia and Poland), while bleeding out on the Eastern Front and in Africa.

        1. Yeah. The Nazis seem pretty good at occupation, largely because they’re so murderous, but it still drains a ton of resources. Maybe they could’ve won the occupation on its own, or the pitched battles against the American-Soviet alliance on its own, but both at the same time is a lot to ask.

          It’s notable that the Soviet Union is very much a centralized state, but the defense in depth strategy lets them get the military benefits of fighting like a decentralized state at the cost of prestige.

          1. Russia has huge amounts of marginally productive land and a long history of responding to invasion by relocating. There’s more than enough steppe to go around and very little value in fighting over a particular patch of it. That’s been part of their military culture since at least the Mongol times.

    2. Just stumbled across this, and am not a military historian or anything like it, but the Byzantine Empire would seem to be a counterexample. They were very much a centralized state, but leaned heavily on cavalry (as someone mentions below) and from the time of the Theme System on their defensive strategy was very much to hide in fortresses and jab the enemy in the butt as he came back from raiding. Of course, you could argue that the Theme System itself is a kind of “decentralization,” but only in the sense that it devolved military command to the local level; Constantinople remained overwhelmingly important in a way that, say, Paris was not in tenth-century France. There was always an emperor with considerable reach and power, overseeing an enormous bureaucracy with plenty of organizational power.

  2. How exactly is it that we can judge any claims like:

    >The cavalry charge […] becomes an extremely important tactic from the early middle ages until well after the ubiquity of firearms.

    That is to say, what do we need to observe from modernity in order to judge reasonably that any particular military technique or technology was or was not important in its time?

    Is it inference from eyewitness reports, or records of army composition + knowledge of who won, or…?

    1. Yes, those are the main ways. We have some accounts of how battles went (sometimes eyewitness, sometimes not), which often include descriptions of infantry formations being broken by charges, etc. The bureaucratic records of army composition are often pretty bad in the medieval period, but they’re better than nothing. There are some very striking cases of large peasant revolts being crushed by much smaller groups of knights, although the cavalry vs infantry difference isn’t the only thing going on in those cases.

      There’s also weaker inferences we can make from things like the obvious expense of horsemen’s equipment, the cultural prominence of chivalry, etc.

  3. I thought it was a truth universally acknowledged that trained infantry beats cavalry every time
    just that in order to have trained infantry your society needs to be rich enough to afford masses of men putting aside time to train
    and as the roman empire deteriorated europeans could no longer do that

    1. The experience of the Eastern Roman Empire against the varied challenges it faced would argue against that construction.

      Before one inflection point in their history, it was all infantry, all the time for their military, and the cavalry was entirely a secondary affair, left to non-Roman auxiliaries. After that point, they went to copying the cataphracts of the Partians and Sassanids, while simultaneously de-emphasizing the infantry.

      My take on this having happened has more to do with mobility and the need to rapidly shift forces over wide distances than it does with the availability of resources and manpower. A trained infantry legion is probably as expensive to maintain as the equivalent force of cataphractoi, but the difference in mobility and response time, as well as other logistics issues probably made the horseman a more effective and versatile military tool than the infantryman. Even if the horseman was more expensive to maintain, he’d still be preferable to the infantryman because of his greater strategic mobility and versatility.

      There’s more to the question than just stirrups; the surrounding milieu in terms of technology, economics, and environment probably played a huge role. Not to mention, culture–As Rome left egalitarianism behind, and embraced the early stages of feudalism, the necessary literacy and independence in the lower ranks evaporated. You can’t make a legion without the Centurion, and without the underlying cultural infrastructure, it may well have been impossible to create the necessary things that made an infantry legion so deadly to its enemies.

  4. FWIW, I think the argument “heavy cavalry was the dominant force in medieval european armies” is questionable, at best. There are any number of examples of cavalry being completely powerless against infantry, and at least one major power – England – noticed this and transitioned away from cavalry in the 14th century in favour of almost-all infantry forces which used horses only for strategic/operational mobility.

    Looking at, for example, Hastings in 1066, the Norman cavalry was powerless against the Anglo-Saxon infantry. It was a ruse which drew the Anglo-Saxon infantry into disorder which won the battle, not the power of the cavalry. Or, several centuries later (when plate armour was becoming widely available, and heavy cavalry should have been even more dominant), the similar inability of the English cavalry to break the Scottish infantry formations at Bannockburn in 1314 essentially convinced the English to abandon heavy cavalry and field armies comprised of heavy infantry and archers. Generally, when cavalry charges against infantry were successful, it was against infantry in poor order.

    Medieval field army composition was always or almost always mostly infantry. Even at battles like Hastings where the narrative is generally given as Anglo-Saxon infantry vs Norman cavalry, cavalry made up only about 1/4 of the numerical strength of the Norman force. This is common across all the great “cavalry forces” – for just one more example, at Crecy (where French cavalry was decimated by English heavy infantry and archers), the French force is report in chronicles as being about 10-20% cavalry.

    At best, heavy cavalry charges were highly situational, and were never the dominant, deciding factor in medieval battles. Nor was cavalry ever the numerical bulk of a force. As such, I’m not sure there’s actually so much to explain. Heavy cavalry was a flexible and mobile force which gave tactical options to the commander, and as such, was a useful component of a field army. It could decimate disordered infantry in the open, and move quickly to where it was needed. It fared poorly against massed infantry in good order. At no point was heavy cavalry able to win battles on its own, and at no point was it widely the bulk of medieval armies.

    1. Most of your examples are post-1300, and cavalry does seem to become much less important in that period. (I suspect this is connected to the increasing centralization of royal power.) Here I’m thinking about the High Middle Ages, where heavy cavalry often seems to be a crucial factor in who wins wars despite being a numerical minority of the army, and battles like Hastings where the cavalry seems unimportant are the exception rather than the rule.

      1. I am definitely better-versed in the 14th Century, but chose Hastings to avoid too much emphasis on the end of the period. In any case, my point is basically cavalry – with stirrups or without – is powerless against well-disciplined foot, and more generally to argue against there every having been a dominance of cavalry. The stirrup is a minor point, at best – cavalry is primarily a morale/mobility tool.

        Additionally (and I did not address this previously, but is arguably a more important point), warfare in the medieval period was primarily focused on siege warfare (until the English employment of chevauchee, but even then sieges were critical), in which cavalry is obviously without value.

        > The more difficult question is why Europe transitioned from infantry-based armies to cavalry-based armies, if not for stirrups.

        I’m arguing it never did, so this question rests on a faulty premise and does not need answering. As far as I’m aware, it was never normal for cavalry to outnumber foot, let alone foot + archers. This is the general consensus of modern scholarship, afaik, and has been for decades. For example, from ‘”Milites” and Warfare in Pre-Crusade Germany’ (

        “…[I]n 1970, Bernard Bachrach published what would become the single most important study in revising the scholarly consensus regarding the role of mounted forces on the battlefields of early medieval Europe. Bachrach demonstrated first that there was no basis for concluding a technological revolution involving stirrups had taken place in the eighth-century Frankish kingdom. More importantly, he then demonstrated that mounted forces played only an auxiliary role on battlefields, which continued to be dominated by foot soldiers, who were drawn from militia levies, i.e. non-professional troops.”

        The question simply doesn’t need answering, because there never was a “dominance of cavalry”.

        1. Once again, I agree that infantry was the numerical majority of the armies in question. My claim is that the strategic impact of cavalry was greater than the numerical fraction it represented. When people claim that air superiority became a key factor in 20th century warfare, they are not claiming that most soldiers were pilots.

          For an excellent description of how mobile warfare and siege warfare interact in the age when castles dominate the battlefield, see Weapons Systems and Political Stability.

          I can’t easily find an accessible copy of the Bachrach article you allude to (I assume it’s “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism”), but I’d gladly take a look if you send me a copy.

          1. Yes, that’s the article, the full citation is “””Bernard S. Bachrach, ‘Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup and Feudalism’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History VII (1970), 49-75, and repr. with the same
            pagination in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot, 1993) Also see Alex Roland, ‘Once More into the Stirrups: Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change’, Technology and Culture XLIV (2003), 574—85, which tends to confirm Bachrach’s criticisms of White’s main arguments”””

            It also cites: “””With regard to the enormous influence of this study on subsequent scholarship, see DeVries
            and Smith, Military Technology, 109-13″””

            The claim is not so simple as the strawman “more infantry = more importance”. As the article I quote says, “mounted forces played only an auxiliary role on battlefields, which continued to be dominated by foot soldiers”.

            1. Ok, so there’s a lot of ground to cover here.

              First, we have to avoid being distracted too much by major battles. The vast majority of military-political actions are not large, pitched battles, but a constant series of raids, reprisals and repressions. The importance of a highly disciplined, mobile force for this kind of activity is as important today as it was then.

              And even if we look battles, Hastings is a piss-poor example. Of course charging uphill, frontally, into an disciplined infantry force is a bad idea. The whole advantage of cavalry is the combination of shock value and maneuverability. Not to mention the value of the pursuit. If you can run down large numbers of the enemy (As did in fact happen at Hastings), you’re much more likely to prevent a second major encounter. In order to advance your argument seriously, you need to point to a string of battles, or a trend.

              You also keep pointing to the numerical quantities of troops as to what counts as “Core”. This would be like saying that the Roman legions weren’t core to the Roman military, because actual legionnaires were frequently only 1/3 of the troops.

              I kind of doubt you’ve even read the articles you keep pointing to. Otherwise, you’d repeat their actual arguments, rather than their conclusions. If I could get a pdf of them, I’d read them and analyze their arguments. As it stands, all you’re really saying is “You should defer to what I think the military history consensus is” which is epistemically ridiculous. It’s been wrong before, it’ll be wrong again, and I don’t think humanities scholarship got magically better over the past thirty years.

              Rather than speaking from sources I haven’t read, I’ll speak from those I have. Namely, primary sources of the first Crusade, as part of my general research into the rise of Norman power and the Hauteville family. All the major sources – Byzantine, Frankish and Arab emphasis the might and power of the Frankish heavy cavalry charge. Some of these people were actually there. All of these sources are pretty focused on propaganda – frequently talking down the other party, calling them cowards, focusing on their atrocities, etc. But both the Byzantine and Arab sources still essentially say,”You’ve got to give those Franks credit for their heavy cavalry charge though.”

              And no, the Arab forces of the first crusade were not entirely undisciplined. In fact, cavalry forces have been proving themselves more than “Useless” against well-disciplined infantry for a long, long time. Philip and Alexander military innovation over the greek mainland was essentially in superior cavalry. The Poles and their famed Winged Hussars versus the Ottoman army at Vienna. (And please don’t try and tell me that the Ottoman army doesn’t count as “Well-disciplined”.)

              Again, a frontal assault into an entrenched position of well-disciplined infantry is a bad idea. But neither that, nor arguments from numerical supremacy of infantry (Heavily armored cavalry is, among other things, expensive.), nor single battles, nor your take on the scholarly consensus actually demonstrates that cavalry forces were not dominant.

              If by “dominant” you mean “numerically inferior”. Then, as I’ve said, I don’t disagree with you. But “Numerically inferior” is much less interesting than cultural emphasis, frequency as a deciding factor, and the relative change in investment to produce such forces. It would be like saying aircraft carriers weren’t a dominant factor in the Pacific Theater of WW2.

  5. “If a historian in the year 3000 were trying to date the advent of the machine gun, and only had fragments of secondary sources and doubtful archeological scraps, it would still be possible because the machine gun so greatly transformed strategy, tactics, and the experience of individual soldiers.”

    Well. If you’re out at a thousand-year remove where “weapons” are a completely new sort of technology–like, nanoparticle dust that infiltrates the target’s neurons and forcibly alters their personality–then one gun is pretty much the same as another, and you could probably think of anything from a breechloading musket to an M2 Browning as a “machine gun”, in the sense of “a firearm with mechanisms that assist in the loading process”. I mean, you’re correct that *self-loading fully-automatic* firearms were significant, but…firearms with revolving chambers existed in the 16th century, so if you’re just looking for “gun that has multiple loaded rounds and a mechanism to move them into firing position”, that’s a pretty wide range. And if you’re being very specific, then you have to do the same thing with stirrups as well–not all of them were equal. (Some cultures didn’t even use pairs!)

  6. “Strategic considerations are usually Pareto-distributed in importance, and one major factor tends to overwhelm many medium-size factors.”

    What makes you think this? I’d be curious to see a source, if you have one.

    1. This is based on my own observations, and on noticing trends in the writing of skilled strategists. Offhand I’d recommend Clausewitz for several clear demonstrations of this idea, although IIRC he doesn’t spell it out explicitly.

  7. I’m unsold by your premise, that there should be overwhelming evidence of a sudden lurch to stirrup enabled heavy cavalry.

    The period in question sees the dissolution of deep seated Roman concepts of war that were rooted in heavy infantry traditions. In the period immediately preceding this we still had regional powers attempting to copy the Roman legionary system with some frequency, and there are lots of saying about nothing being harder to change than a military mind.

    Then there’s the sheer practicalities of attempting fast expansion of cavalry forces. Even if you tried out stirrups and went “Yep this is the future” you wouldn’t have any of the social or physical infrastructure in place to produce lots of good quality riders and horses probably for a number of generations even if you set at it. In the mean time you still need light cavalry for scouting and harrassing, and you still need line forces to fight and achieve decision, so a more sensible strategy would be to continue to raise the forces that you know work while you slowly build up your heavy cavalry infrastructure.

    And that assumes you say “Yep this is the future” the first time you use them. It doesn’t necessarily follow that military thinkers would immediately recognise the ability of stirrups to revolutionise land tactics. I can very much imagine a scenario like the intermediate vs full power cartridge debate in the US that held up Western adoption of assault rifles for decades between proponents of traditional cavalry vs these new fangled shock cavalry ideas.

    The scenario for something like a machinegun is far easier to do super quickly, because you’re just scaling production using the same materials as your manual repeating arms. Raising totally new types of forces, scaling up horse breeding, training lots of riders etc, these are far harder and slower things to do, especially if the concept is unproven and there are social/political impediments.

    1. This sort of delay can make things fuzzy on the scale of decades, but not centuries. The development and implementation of excellent doctrine for armored vehicles and aircraft took, what, 30 years?

      1. Not at all. Excellent doctrine for armour and aircraft went hand in hand with designs and production scale that allowed that doctrine to function. There isn’t a neat parallel for scaling up shock cavalry quality and quantity that quickly.

        Hell, Sherman (one of the greatest proponents of mechanisation and motorisation) was writing in the interwar period that horse cavalry would always have place in warfare. Imagine living in a time when you’re facing institutional biases like that and you aren’t seeing improvements in quality and quantity like we saw in tanks in a compressed time frame like that. I can easily see something like that dragging over hundreds of years, stopping and starting, making a step forwards for every step back and so on.

    2. And that assumes you say “Yep this is the future” the first time you use them.

      Which in turn assumes that you think in terms of continuous technological improvement in a way that medieval military leaders generally didn’t.

    3. If people have been practicing their craft their entire life, and a tool yields a clear improvement with a disadvantage, they’ll adopt it, and generally spread the word, too.

      The medieval knights were warriors – artists, in some sense. Not soldiers. They didn’t need to be told what equipment to have. They got the best equipment they could, and knew a great deal about what that was. We’re talking about societies for whom the equestrian elite is already incredibly important. Training new riders and horse breeding are not serious bottlenecks.

      To rephrase, medieval armies were not constructed in the same top-down way that you’re drawing a parallel to. They were a network of the practice of war, which changed the entire pattern of how innovation would have spread.

  8. The answer put forward by Hans DelBruck was the collapse of the monetary system in the late Empire period. What makes infantry effective is massed, disciplined troops. Discipline can only be achieved through training, which costs money, which has to be at least some facsimile of cash. Devaluation of common currency lead to an economic breakdown, which lead to a return to a barter or in-kind economy, which in turn produces feudalism. If you can only be paid in grain, you need a local lord who collects the taxed grain, and supports a relatively small number of retainers, which are now the military force. Economic disaster reduced the numbers of people engaged in combat drastically, and the training of the legions disappeared, which made the infantry undisciplined, which made them vulnerable to cavalry. Once various people (like the Swiss) figure out how to fund training for masses of infantry again, infantry retakes the battlefield from cavalry.

    The removal of cash means soldiers get paid in food/housing, and if you can only feed and house X number of soldiers, it makes sense to make them as skilled, well equipped and mobile as possible.

    DelBruck makes a reasonably strong case in “Barbarian Invasions” that the hordes of antiquity were much smaller than commonly thought. Rome may have been sacked by only a few thousand men.

    1. Interesting. I just ordered Barbarian Invasions. I see it’s Volume II; what’s your opinion on the other volumes?

      1. I have all four in the series. I find them quite interesting, though I’m not qualified to judge the accuracy of many of his claims. He was writing in the very early 20th century, and was a fairly ardent German nationalist. I take anything he says about the ancient germans with a grain of salt. That said, he applies the scientific military technique pioneered by the Prussians to the study of ancient history quite well. Historians might read an account of an army of 1.5 million men and debate whether or not that’s accurate, and how much it might be off. DelBruck just pulls out a military manual that has a chart for how many men can march down a road (given modern formation, discipline, road construction, etc.) and arrives at a maximum bound relatively easily. He visited the plains of Marathon, for example, and quickly calculated that the number of troops claimed to have been at the battle wouldn’t fit on it, much less be able to run the long distance that became famous at the time.

        He has a small volume called “Numbers in History”, that goes over some of these estimation techniques and their results.

  9. On a general note you seem to be making a strong assumption about the speed with which an innovation like the stirrup would diffuse through the ancient world. Isn’t it possible that there was a substantial period in which it was used by some groups but not others? If the groups which didn’t adopt the stirrup quickly had other advantages couldn’t this explain the observations?

    “Strategic considerations are usually Pareto-distributed in importance, and one major factor tends to overwhelm many medium-size factors.”

    I’m not sure this isn’t just a result of how we tend to label things. I mean you might call the machine gun a single major factor but you could equally well break it down into the sum of the mini-ball, cartridge, gas operated mechanism etc..

    1. >On a general note you seem to be making a strong assumption about the speed with which an innovation like the stirrup would diffuse through the ancient world.

      That’s right. For comparison, during the High Middle Ages, very capital-intensive economic innovations would generally take 100-200 years to become the norm throughout all of Christian Europe. I would expect the stirrup to spread faster than e.g. water-powered paper mills because (1) military technology spreads much, much faster than economic technology and (2) stirrups are simple to make, and require neither highly trained specialists nor major reorganization of capital, unlike the economic technologies I’m comparing them to. So, if the stirrup made a huge difference, then it should spread much too fast to explain the discrepancies in the claims I’ve seen.

  10. I know very little about any of this, but my lay understanding was that the feudal stratification of the era caused large differences in the military power of elites v peasants, ~ in the same way as the samurai. This would mean the cause of cavalry domination was then just that the elites were cavalry in Western warfare. I do have the question of how better metalworking plays into this and the direction of the causal arrows between feudalism, metalworking, and powerful elite warriors. Is this hypothesis silly?

  11. FWIW I strongly believe the statement “The more difficult question is why Europe transitioned from infantry-based armies to cavalry-based armies” may in itself carry a false premise. Just when and where did this shift occur? And what period evidence exists for this major military transformation? Contemporary specialist scholars on medieval military history are far from mutual agreement on the issue*

    From my own foray into medieval east-central europe I on the contrary see a case for continuity in the kingdom of Bohemia from early medieval until well into renaissance (That is in term of horse to foot ratio and I would argue for constant presence of combined arms tactics in field engagements)

    I also do not believe any kind of modern scholarly “consensus” can pigeonhole a millenium of war practices of a whole continent.


    * see the debate between Verbruggen, “The Role of Cavalry,”; the reply from Bachrach in the article “Verbruggen’s “Cavalry” and the Lyon-Thesis”‘; as well as C.J Rogers’ ” carolingian cavalry in battle”

  12. See my article Stephen Morillo, “The ‘Age of Cavalry’ Revisited” in D. Kagay, ed., The Circle of War. (Boydell and Brewer, 1999). Simple version: since under normal circumstances horses will not charge into a solid wall (of brick, stone, or humans wielding spears), a cavalry charge with or without stirrups is a psychological weapon: it must scare some of the infantry into breaking ranks and thus opening a few holes in the “wall” into which the cavalry can enter and wreak havoc. Result: good infantry that stands steady in solid ranks can repulse even good cavalry. What does it take to create good infantry? Either drawing the infantry from cohesive social groups (like Greek poleis or Swiss cantons) or having a strong enough central government to recruit, pay, and train masses of infantry (like Rome). Between the Fall of Rome and the return of effective central states sometime in the 14th century, almost nowhere in Europe had either urban areas with strong social cohesion or states strong enough to raise good infantry forces. Result: the dominance (social as well as military) of armored cavalrymen. Cavalry, in other words, did not rise, infantry fell, and then rose again.
    The stirrup made cavalry better against other cavalry, not against infantry.

  13. I think the Hunnic invasions may had something to do with it. The importance of Cavalry is elevated as a result of the incursion of steppe horsemen who often beat more infantry focused armies.

    The great migrations that brought down the Western Roman Empire is the result of the Huns rampaging through Eastern Europe.

    They are often the conquering elites and destroyed the existing ruling class. Their tradition of horsemanship is carried on by their sons and grandsons before they themselves lose the edge as in China.

    Or they transfer that tradition onto the peoples that they conquer.

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